The two-acre site of the Armstrong School, which has been out of use since the mid-1950s, includes a church, burial ground, and school house.
Protecting and Celebrating Civil Rights Heritage and Black Histories
Weitzman’s Center for the Preservation of Civil Rights Sites (CPCRS) is working towards protecting places that celebrate, commemorate, and raise awareness of American civil rights and Black history. Currently celebrating its first year, the Center’s focus on teaching, research, and field projects will enable it to continue its essential work of amplifying and preserving the legacy of civil rights in the U.S.
Spurred by a partnership between Randy Mason and Kwesi Daniels of Tuskegee University, CPCRS collaborates with preservationists, stewardship organizations, advocates, and scholars. “Our work is about visibility and enhancing the presence of these stories in the world,” says Mason, faculty director and professor in the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation at Weitzman. “When this opportunity presented itself, it was sensible to bring together people doing similar things and build a place to work together.”
Despite the challenges of launching the Center during the COVID-19 pandemic, CPCRS was able to engage with students, scholars, and members of the community last year through teaching and research, with fieldwork and new collaborations able to take shape this summer.
As part of its teaching objective, last spring’s “Reckoning with Civil Rights Sites” studio course, co-taught by Mason and Brent Leggs, incorporated insights from history, preservation, management, and design through seminars and workshops; students then worked on final projects to develop conservation plans for two Black heritage sites—one in Philadelphia, one in rural Alabama.
CPCRS also hosted a series of online dialogues last spring. The goal of these public and informal conservations with researchers that study Black heritage and civil rights was to raise visibility and deepen conversations about civil rights heritage and new approaches to help preserve Black history. Other ongoing work at CPCRS include crowd-sourced digital exhibitions that commemorate civil rights leaders and sites, including a new project about Juneteenth, and a national study of the geography of U.S. civil rights sites.
Over this summer, CPCRS was also able to build additional momentum through fieldwork and collaborations with students, advocates, and organizations across a number of civil rights heritage sites both locally and nationally.
Located near Tuskegee University, the Armstrong School is a pre-Rosenwald schoolhouse built in 1906 as part of an effort by Booker T. Washington, Tuskegee faculty, and the local community to support education for rural Black children. Across the state in Marion, the Perry County Jail was at the center of peaceful voter registration protests that led to the murder of Black veteran and civil rights activist Jimmy Lee Jackson by police officers, which spurred the Selma to Montgomery march of 1965.
Collaborating remotely this summer with students and faculty from Tuskegee University, who were working on emergency stabilization efforts at the Armstrong School, CPCRS staffer Sarah Lerner documented a more complete history of the school. Meanwhile, recent Historic Preservation Master’s graduate Hanna Stark drafted a National Register of Historic Places nomination for Perry County Jail in Marion, Alabama. The process of nominating a site onto the National Register is complex and detailed, but a successful nomination can provide opportunities for new grants that can fund the stabilization, preservation, and interpretation plans.
This summer, Stark conducted archival research and began drafting a historical narrative about the Jail and the events surrounding it. The Armstrong School research built on coursework completed earlier by Tuskegee undergrads and Penn graduate students. Relying on crucial information from the architectural analysis provided by interns at Tuskegee, the historical register nomination drafted by CPCRS provides key details about the building itself as well as clear statements of significance that meet national criteria for the Register. “I really liked our collaboration with the Tuskegee students, and I don’t think that my work would have been nearly as well done if I didn’t have sources on the ground,” Stark says.
As COVID-19 travel restrictions were lifted, Mason was able to visit Alabama this summer to meet with both the Center’s partners at Tuskegee as well as new external partners and keepers of civil rights heritage sites across the state. In addition to both current and future field projects happening in Alabama, Mason is excited to work with activists organizing around Montgomery’s historic Loveless School, which will be the subject of one of the Historic Preservation studios this fall.
“This site taps into lots of issues that cities face, with schools being abandoned because there are fewer students, neighborhoods still reeling from urban renewal and highway construction, yet folks are rallying around schools and other community landmarks,” he says about the Loveless School collaboration. “I learned an amazing amount from the extraordinary people I’m meeting, while I covered a lot of territory—visiting different places every day, hearing their stories, meeting new partners, and deepening connections with our existing partners.”
Here in Philadelphia, two CPCRS interns spent their summers conducting research and drafting amendments to the National Register nominations of two historic sites, Sellers Hall in Upper Darby and Bayard Rustin’s childhood home in West Chester, with the goal of an updated historical interpretation of the sites that provides additional context about the significance of these sites in civil rights history.
As CPCRS looks back on its one-year anniversary, it’s also looking towards the future thanks to all of the momentum generated this past year. In addition to continued and new fieldwork, collaborations with Tuskegee and other partners, studio courses, and research projects, the Center is also hosting its first virtual symposium this November.
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